The Appalling Absurdity of Mandatory Minimum Prison Sentences
Shoplifters are serving life while a notorious rapist walks free after three months.
Published on September 2, 2016

As of 2013, the last time an extensive study of life without parole cases in the U.S. was conducted, there were 3,278 prisoners serving life without the possibility of parole. Seventy-nine out of every 100 of these inmates is behind bars for a non-violent, drug-related offence, a lopsided statistic which has the practice of mandatory minimums to thank for its ridiculous appearance.

When Americans think of criminals who deserve to be locked up for life without the possibility of parole, we think of murderers, kidnappers, child abusers, and terrorists. We think of the absolute lowest that society has to offer—killers for hire, violent sociopaths: those with no grasp of what it means to respect themselves or desire the respect of others. We think, to put it bluntly, about the kind of person who could rape another and laugh afterwards.

Americans do not, when we think of the harshest sentence the law can pass down without actually murdering you, think of the following: sharing several grams of LSD with Grateful Dead concertgoers; acting as a go-between in the sale of $20 of marijuana to an undercover officer; making a drunken threat to a police officer while handcuffed in the back of a patrol car; shoplifting three belts from a department store.

We should, though, because thanks to mandatory minimums, these are all offenses for which there are currently Americans who will die in jail. In fact, each of the Americans below, except one, is currently serving life without the possibility of parole. While some names have been changed by the ACLU in their report “A Living Death: Life Without Parole for Non-Violent Offences,” their stories are all factual. After reading them, one can’t help but apply Sesame Street logic in spotting the most obvious problem posed by these stories: Which of these things is not like the other?

Fate Vincent Winslow

A homeless man who acted as go-between in the sale of two miniscule bags of cannabis (worth $20 total) to an undercover cop, Winslow was sentenced to LWOP based on other “strikes” that were 14 and 24 years old, respectively. The dealer in the transaction, who was also identified by the undercover officer, was never charged.

Paul Carter

When found with trace amounts of heroin residue on his clothes so small that they could not be weighed by police, Carter was sentenced to LWOP based on two 10-year-old convictions of simple escape and possession of stolen property. Though a habitual drug user since his teenage years, Carter was never offered the chance to rehabilitate—he was simply sentenced to die in jail.

Lance Saltzman

After his stepfather repeatedly threatened his mother with the gun he kept at home, Saltzman stole the gun to protect her. The gun was hidden and his mother’s life was safe from her abusive husband’s threats, but Saltzman’s stepfather was so incensed that he reported the gun stolen. Because Saltzman had committed a burglary at 16, a Florida law deemed it necessary that Saltzman spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Brock Turner

A promising Stanford swimmer, Turner raped an unconscious woman behind a dumpster on campus. Two good Samaritans stopped the assault, later revealing Turner had laughed as they pulled him off the unresponsive, half-naked woman. His sexual assault, which he blamed on college “drinking culture,” was described by his father as “20 minutes of action” at trial. The judge, not wanting to unduly taint the life of such a promising young man, gave him the minimum allowable sentence. He is being released from jail today, having served half of a six-month sentence.

Tim Baker
Tim Baker is a New York-based writer and sometimes editor whose work has appeared in Newsweek, TV Guide, CBS and Discovery Special Editions, and can regularly be found at He has an MFA in creative writing from The New School and also attended Hunter College of the City University of New York.
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